Translating Hugh Howey: No Hugh, Self-Published Authors Don't Treat Readers Like Dirt. If You Do, That's Between You and Your Readers.

I'm Robert Stanek, a pro author since 1994 and an indie since 2001. Normally, I wouldn’t comment one way or another about Hugh Howey. We swim in different oceans and our paths rarely cross. In truth, I didn’t know the guy existed until he made several direct responses to me in online discussions I participated in last November/December.

Clearly, based on these posts, Hugh Howey wanted me to know he existed. The fact I didn’t have a clue who he was seemed to wound him deeply and a fisticuffs ensued with several of his online associates. I had no clue why Hugh Howey would care so much whether I knew who he was until I learned later he had been taking shots at me for quite a long time.

Over the past year, Hugh Howey seems to have been waging war against traditional publishing, a long string of a-list authors, and anyone who supports traditional publishing. To give you an idea of some of the things he’s been saying, here are his thoughts on David Streitfeld of the New York Times:

David Streitfeld of the New York Times has now cemented himself as the blabbering mouthpiece for the New York publishing cartel, and while he is making a fool of himself for those in the know, he is a dangerous man for the impression he makes on his unsuspecting readers.

Recently, I chanced upon a discussion in response to Hugh's blog post entitled, “Are Indies Treated Like Second Class Citizens?”. As you can see from the screen shot (at the end of this article), there’s some simple discussion and then Hugh Howey appears out of the blue saying:

How am I bashing Amazon? I'm guessing you just read the first line or two? Really asking.

The only bashing I see is from the usual suspects and aimed at me. Thinly veiled, of course.

Read the posts from the screen shot. If Hugh thinks he's being bashed somehow by that, he really needs to get out more or at the least learn how to take some simple criticism. 

Intrigued by his hubris, I decided to read “Are Indies Treated Like Second Class Citizens?” Knowing what I know about publishing from over 20 years in this business, I want to translate a few things Hugh says in the article.

Based on my read of the article, it seems Hugh Howey has recently learned that trad publishers not only get higher royalty rates than him but also get more money for borrows in KDP Select and Kindle Unlimited than he does—and he wants to figure out how to get the same pay day. A few choice quotes:

[A KU author gets] $1.30-ish for a borrow. A $9.99 ebook borrowed from a trad publisher, meanwhile, will pay 70%, which comes to $6.99. It’s worth pointing out here that the trad-pubbed author of that ebook will only receive around $1.48 for that same borrow of a $9.99 ebook.

Hugh bases the $1.48 on a 21% royalty rate from the publisher. In actuality, the royalty rate paid for ebooks by trad publishers to their authors can be anywhere from 10% net to 25% net, so in the range of .70 to $1.75.

Hugh also states:

indies aren’t just treated like second class citizens by Amazon — self-published authors treat Amazon’s customers like second class citizens.

Um, speak for yourself, Hugh Howey. Most authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, don’t treat their readers (who are Amazon customers) poorly. If you do, then that’s between you and your readers.

Next, Hugh tries to figure out a plausible way to get more money for himself and authors like him. His words in bold italics. The translation of his words in normal type.

The same freedom to publish that has changed the lives of thousands of authors also brings a wild west where others take advantage and try to game every system in every way possible. A handful of rotten apples spoils the entire bunch. The only way to prevent this is heavy curation, which I certainly don’t want. I want freedom, but with freedom comes the need to curb abuses. The logical step (and many have argued for this, some with compassion, some out of spite) is a tiered system. Classes of treatment for publishers based on the class of treatment given to customers.

What Hugh's really saying: Authors like me who sell lots of books and have thousands of rave reviews should get paid more than authors who don’t. After all, in the class system I'm proposing, I'm in the top tier (and the rest of you aren’t.) Also, while we’re at it, let’s make sure there’s real incentive to take down any author who tries to climb the class ladder.

So you have a class of authors who make their deadlines and a class of authors on probation for not meeting their deadlines. You have a class of authors who get regular feedback from readers about typos and a class of authors who rarely get this feedback (or who act on it promptly when they do). You have authors whose ebooks are read in a few days and authors whose ebooks are read in a few weeks, a reflection, perhaps, on the quality of the customer experience but not on the quality of the work.

What Hugh's really saying: Sorry the rest of you authors are fuck ups. In the class system I'd like to build, you'll be at the bottom anyway and guys like me will be at the top. 

I think we should have the same opportunities... but I don’t think we have the right to expect the same outcomes. That’s where the classes start sorting themselves. Should authors who sell a lot of books get better treatment than authors just starting out?

What Hugh's really saying: My success isn't something you'll ever achieve and the class system I want to build will help ensure this by making sure none of you get paid anywhere close to what a guy like me gets paid. The class system has worked so well throughout history. Peasants should not mix with us nobles and royals. I've been an author for 5 years now. If you haven't, you shouldn't have any of the same rights as I do.

Of course, it will be impossible to prevent abuses by the untoward and impossible to agree on metrics of quality (an exercise that I abhor). But now we can ask again whether Amazon should pay indies — as a whole — the same way they pay trad publishers. ... do I think indies as a whole should get paid the same as trad publishers as a whole? I do not.

What Hugh's really saying: Indies as a whole don't deserve the same pay as someone like me. Authors like me who sell lots of books should get paid more than authors who don’t. Although I abhor having to be the one to determine metrics of quality, I will as it'll help ensure the class structure I want to build remains top light and bottom heavy. I want to control the class ladder to make sure it's impossible to climb to the same lofty heights as me.

The authors who respect Amazon’s customers by providing high quality reads with professional covers at a great price should be treated better than those who upload short error-riddled rough drafts at high prices. And the latter should be treated better than those who break Amazon’s TOS, like having KDP Select books available elsewhere. And this group should be treated better than those who break the law by uploading stolen material (or by profiting from open-source or crowd-sourced material).

What Hugh's really saying: You must overlook the fact that the rules don't apply to me. My books are in KDP Select and also available everywhere else. Further, even though I became a success by cutting my books into parts and selling them in as many pieces as I wanted, that's not something anyone else should be able to do. In a class system, guys like me will make the rules anyway and they'll only apply to the rest of you. Also, while we're at it, let's find ways to make sure that everyone recognizes that everything I produce is a flawless gem and that everything the rest of you produce is flawed crap.

I am biased. I think Amazon should tweak their KU payout system to make it more fair among us indies. 99 cent short stories and novels should pay the same 35 cents that they do on KDP. The payout should also come at higher than the 10% read range (maybe more like 50%). Works priced from $2.99 – $6.99 should pay $2.00 per borrow.

What Hugh's really saying: Take a look at the price of my books. Since my work is better and costs more, I should be getting $2 a borrow and the rest of you shouldn’t. Further more, no one should be able to price their books at .99 like I did. That approach to success is only reserved for people like me at the top of the class structure I'm building.

The fairest thing I can think of is escalators. Amazon’s self-publishing audio book program, ACX, used to employ earnings escalators. The payout rate might start at 40%, but it can go up to 90% with enough sales. This puts the job of rewarding customer experience where it belongs, and that’s with the customer. Keep them happy and coming back for more, and the payout goes up.

What Hugh's really saying: Authors like me should make more than everyone else. After all, in a class system, we’re the top tier (and the rest of you aren’t). Also, while we’re at it, as authors like me start to earn 90% royalties, it’s highly likely the payout for the rest of you will go down closer to 0%, but don’t worry about that. I’ll spend my millions wisely and I encourage you to help me fight for my pay raise. I earned it. I'm Hugh Howey.

I’d love to see that 70% payout creep up to 85% with enough titles sold. Maybe 1,000 sales moves the peg up to 71%. 5,000 sales gets you 72%. Perhaps reaching 85% requires selling ten million ebooks (something no single self-published author has yet done on Amazon). I don’t dream of ever reaching that sort of level, but I would applaud those who do for being rewarded for it.

What Hugh's really saying: I’m on track to get to 10 million sold in a few years. Authors like me who sell lots of books and have thousands of rave reviews should get paid more than authors who don’t. After all, in a class system, we’re the top tier (and the rest of you aren’t). Also, truth be told, no one is going to get a raise after 1,000 sales or even after 5,000 sales, but those of us with 1,000,000 or more sales will. When we do, it’s highly likely the payout for the rest of you will go down considerably, but don’t worry about that. We’ll spend our millions wisely, so keep fighting for our pay raises.

As I said in the original post, it is cosmically unfair for all KDP users to be lumped together. That’s the conundrum. I don’t see an easy answer to any of this, just more problems.

What Hugh's really saying: I really hate the fact that I get paid the same royalty rate as everyone else. It’s not enough that I get perks and privileges the rest of you don’t, like having my books in KDP Select while they’re also on sale everywhere else. I’m supposed to be paid more than everyone else. I’m Hugh Howey. It's cosmically unfair that I don't get 90% royalties.

Thanks for reading,

Robert Stanek

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